Singaporean mama of two Kara Tay talks about the highs and lows of living in Hong Kong, from the inconvenience of looking local but not being able to speak Cantonese to juggling Asian and Western parenting styles
Kara Tay shares how she has had seven different homes in the past decade, the struggles of raising children in a foreign country without family support, and what it means to live in Hong Kong when you look like a local but can’t speak Cantonese. Kara’s daughter was born in Singapore while her son was born in Beijing. As Kara’s son will be doing NS one day, so they make it a point to watch Singapore’s National Day Parade every year to be mentally prepared for National Service. Read on for Kara’s full interview.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a trailing spouse and mum to two boisterous kids – Ashley just turned 10 and Christian will be 9 at the end of the year. When my kids started attending school full-time, I found myself with more free time. I was yearning to express myself a lot more so I combined my love for photography and travel. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram. I also run a small online shop selling whimsical bags, thanks to my daughter’s obsession with unicorns.
What brought you to Hong Kong? How long have you been living overseas?
It was my husband’s job in global logistics that first brought us to China, then Germany and now Hong Kong. I left my corporate job back in early 2012 to follow my husband when he was first expatriated to Beijing. At that time, we had just furnished and moved into our own apartment in Singapore and had barely lived in it when we received news that we would have to pack up and move again. We left thinking we were only going to be away for a year or two. Who knew the assignment would turn into nine years of adventure, living in three different countries with two kids growing up internationally?
All in all, we have moved seven different homes in the past decade, I feel like I can almost call myself a pro in house-moving! After a short stint in China, we moved to Germany where my kids spent their kindergarten years. We are currently based in Hong Kong and have been here for four years. We have been away from Singapore for almost 10 years now.
Favourite aspect about living in Hong Kong?
I love that you can enjoy a variety of activities here! The experience here is very raw and unedited, not well-manicured or sanitised like back home. There is so much to do here – you can choose to spend a day eating and shopping in Mongkok, go on a nature hike, take a short boat ride in Sai Kung to explore indigenous villages or go strawberry-picking at one of the many farms in the New Territories. The two major theme parks here in Hong Kong are also a sweet bonus for the kids.
And the worst part?
I wouldn’t say it is the worst part but looking like a local but not being able to speak and understand Cantonese can be quite an inconvenience. Also, in my experience, making friends in Germany was much easier compared to Hong Kong since it’s hard when you look local but can’t quite fit into local groups or conversations due to the language barrier. That said, I’ve gotten better at Cantonese now and can understand a lot more of what is said at supermarkets and dining venues.
What are the current restrictions in Hong Kong due to Covid-19?
At this current moment, there are restrictions in place on the number of people allowed to dine out together. Restaurants and bars are only allowed to open till 10pm. Pools, public playgrounds and some museums have just been allowed to reopen after a long closure. Schools are still online and haven’t been able to open fully or for a long stretch since January last year but all that is about to change with teachers getting vaccinated. Other than that, we have still been able to go out on weekends, eat out and meet with friends.
How have you and your family been coping in the midst of Covid-19?
We have become a lot closer! The adjustment initially was difficult as we all needed our own space to work from home or participate in online classes but we have been able to spend more time together as my husband, who typically travels a lot for work, isn’t able to fly at the moment.
How do you think parenting in Hong Kong differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
I do not have experience bringing up my kids in Singapore. I can however say that the experience of bringing up children is quite different in Germany compared to Hong Kong and being able to experience them both has helped me maintain a good balance of Western and Asian parenting styles.
Did you give birth to your children in Hong Kong? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
No, I did not. My daughter was born in Singapore shortly before we left and my son was born in Beijing. The experience was probably one in a million, as we found out that we were probably the first all-Singaporean couple to give birth to a kid in Beijing! Actually, we were very anxious when we made the decision not to fly home for the birth. The nearest international hospital was not far from our home but Beijing traffic could sometimes add hours to travel time. We had to convince our OB-GYN to induce me for delivery, as she is American and was more inclined towards a more natural birth. As my previous birth was rather quick, just under three hours, we wanted to be very sure I would be in the hospital during delivery and not be stuck in traffic or worse, having to deliver the baby in a taxi! Overall, the experience was very pleasant and I would say pretty much on par with my experience with delivering my first kid in Singapore.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
I was in corporate sales and account management throughout my career and had to make a big switch to become a stay-at-home mother (SAHM) when we had kids. As much as I miss corporate life, I really enjoy my time spent at home caring for my kids and parenting them hands-on. Pre-pandemic, I was also a freelance writer for a popular Singaporean food blog, covering eating spots in Hong Kong. I am glad my kids are a little older now and I am able to have more flexibility to work on my business and my blog.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Hong Kong?
I wouldn’t say there are many child-friendly eating places here but the chain restaurants like Pizza Express and Din Tai Fung have always been good options if we dine out with little ones. My kids fell in love with dim sum the moment they got here and the cute character dim sum at Yum Cha is always a hit.
Top five places in or around Hong Kong you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.
1. Hong Kong Disneyland Resort – A must! Everything about Disney just brings on the magic.
2. Ocean Park Hong Kong – The theme park is massive and great for kids young and old. There are a lot of animals to see for the younger ones and thrill rides for the teens, plus a cable car ride for everyone to enjoy a gorgeous view.
3. Nan Lian Garden – This traditional garden is super beautiful and tranquil. You will feel like you have been transported to Japan.
4. Mongkok – Perfect to truly experience the local Hong Kong scene. Take a walk through the Goldfish Market where kids can look at fishes and aquariums as well as check out cute furry animals in the pet shops. There are also plenty of shopping and eating options all over Mongkok which makes it a perfect spot for moms too.
5. Tsim Sha Tsui – The Hong Kong Science Museum in Tsim Sha Tsui is amazing for kids and the Hong Kong Musem of History is fun for seeing how Hong Kong looks like in the past. It’s almost unbelievable that the Hong Kong Space Museum is in the area too.
Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?
Booking a flight timing that works best with minimal interruptions to their sleep or naps! When we used to fly long haul from Frankfurt back to Singapore, we would usually book night flights so the children would mostly sleep on the plane and we only had to keep them entertained in a tight space in their remaining waking hours. Bringing along lots of toys, books, entertainment and snacks definitely helped. These days, we usually travel very light as my kids are older and are fine with inflight entertainment.
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
We make it a point to watch the National Day Parade every year! It’s especially important for my son to be mentally prepared for National Service when his time to serve comes and we use the NDP as a platform to discuss that.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Hong Kong
– For a child:
The classic Hong Kong minibus or Hong Kong taxi toy.
– For a mama friend:
Food! I would usually buy Hang Heung’s wife cakes for friends! Their traditional cakes are the best in Hong Kong and most well-known among locals. Also cookies from Glory Bakery! I like the cha chaan teng gift box, which contains cookies in local Hong Kong café flavours such as Hong Kong milk tea, Ovaltine and Horlicks.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
A lot of people underestimate the difficulty of living in a foreign country without family support or childcare help especially during times of sickness or emergencies. My daughter once fell on her chin in Germany and was covered in blood. Thankfully, a German friend happened to be around and helped us interpret when we were attempting to find the nearest hospital to take her to. You can never really fully rehearse for such incidents until they actually happen. Having to be fiercely independent and resourceful at the very start of every new chapter even if you have not yet made any friends or know your way around. It can be very intimidating and alienating but thankfully we have managed to survive with the help of fellow overseas Singaporeans or other foreigners who are in the same boat as us.
On raising multilingual children …
Flexibility! Our kids were spoken to in perfect Mandarin in China, then they lost their Mandarin when we moved to Germany and now they are surrounded by Cantonese in Hong Kong. We have kept it flexible when it comes to their second language but made sure they’ve got their English covered. I guess our circumstances are a bit different as there was no opportunity for them to build on a strong Mandarin foundation in Germany when they were picking up their first words. The flip side is my kids are raised hearing many different languages and accents spoken around them.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
Snacks! We always take bring back nostalgic snacks like murukku and Bee Bee Snack and they would bring them to school sometimes to share with their friends! For myself, I usually get a pandan cake and some pineapple tarts.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
I have been gardening during the pandemic and we have been able to make fresh homemade cashew pesto from scratch using the basil leaves I grow. A staple in my kitchen is pesto penne with shrimps and cherry tomatoes (from my garden too!). It’s a very simple recipe but in hindsight, actually not that simple considering we have to grow the ingredients ourselves!
What’s the one thing you would miss about Hong Kong if you moved away?
The wonderful experience of eating dim sum in a noisy Chinese restaurant! You just can’t replicate this abroad.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
Our family usually picks us up from the airport and our group of 12 would head out for a meal together. It always warms my heart seeing my kids run away from me and into the arms of their grandparents, uncle and aunts on arrival. Knowing that even though they don’t see each other often, these are the people they love and trust.
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
The constant heat and having to assimilate the kids back into local school routines.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
Our decade abroad in different countries and making friends with foreigners from all over the world have allowed us to benefit from hearing their stories, getting to know their cultures and having a wider perspective. Living overseas also meant having the opportunity to travel within and beyond the region we reside in. Our kids have travelled to 20 countries before they reached seven years old because we wanted to make use of every opportunity we have to explore the world, the only option being to drag them along everywhere with us. To me, that experience alone is priceless.
Personally, it has also helped me appreciate certain things we have in Singapore that I wouldn’t have been able to be thankful for if I were living in that constant state of convenience. From getting an “eviction notice” a month after we unpacked and settled into the new rental house in Hong Kong to being pickpocketed at least four times in Europe, we have had a fair share of crazy stories to tell, none of which would have taken place if we hadn’t moved abroad.